Those Pesky Black Holes

“Sucked into Black Holes During Sleep, They Share Their Darkest Secrets.”

Bruno read the headline twice, promptly running his cart into the store shelf. Stunned, he jerked his gaze off his phone.

“Hey, not supposed to read while driving.” A woman, fifties, blunt-cut, short hair, laughed with shining eyes.

Shocked, Bruno stashed his phone in his pocket and shoved his cart alongside the shelf, a guilty child trying to hide the evidence. He forced a grin. No words forthcoming.

She sidled up, her smile dimming by degrees. “Sorry. I tried to warn you. But you were so intent—”

He scratched his head. He didn’t want to have a conversation. A lie formed before his conscience could object. “I had to check a text—”

She lifted a hand. “Not my business. I was being stupid.” Her gaze took in the contents of his cart.

Dang, it. An extra-large bag of his dad’s Depends and a bright blue denture cleaner box bared the naked side of human misery. In revenge, he snuck a look at her cart. Red hair dye and blue nail polish. He glanced at her. Grey hair, fingers unadorned. He frowned.

She grimaced. “My mom’s dealing with that crap too. She was at Wayside, but with everything, I brought her home and got home healthcare. It’s better, but not really good, if you know what I mean.”

Relief, like a spring breeze, washed over Bruno. “Dad’s still on his own, sort of. Lives in the apartment above me. Neither of us can give up our independence. But…”

She snatched up the box of dye. “She gets bored and depressed. So, every couple of months I do a new treatment. This month—” Her lips flapped as she blew a puff of air. “Rad red! I’d like to take her out to eat or something—”

Bruno shrugged in compassionate understanding. “Hell trying to keep ’em on their feet.”

She snorted but a smile crept back into her eyes. “It was easier with a toddler. I could toss them into a cart and strap ‘em in.”

“My twins gave me weekly heart attacks, but they grew out of their hijinks.” Bruno tried not to let the next thought tear his heart out.

With a commander’s wave, she redirected her cart. “Well best of luck then, and keep an eye out for where you’re heading.”

“Ha. I’ll be more careful.” I’m not going anywhere.

~~~

Bruno flipped three grilled cheese sandwiches and then stirred a pot of creamy tomato soup. “Lunch is ready, Dad.”

His dad hobbled in. Using his cane with deft power, he nudged a kitchen chair aside and plunked down at the table with a long sigh. “Smells good. He stretched his neck, peering at the pot. “You add something extra?”

“Lots of garlic salt.” He slid one sandwich onto a plate and placed it on the table. Then he poured the soup into a wide bowl and set it alongside. He fixed his own meal, grabbed a couple of spoons, and dropped them into place. He plopped down on a chair across from his dad, folded his hands, and bowed his head.

Hurried sign of the cross, a quick prayer, and they started in.

Slurps and clanks of metal on glass accompanied their chewing and swallowing.

The old man glanced up, wiped his chin, and huffed. “Anything new in the big world?”

Bruno shrugged as he swallowed his last bite. “I ran into a shelf and some strange woman laughed at me.”

His eyes widening in horror, the old man spluttered. “The wretched—”

Bruno grinned. “I wasn’t looking where I was going, and she was nice enough.” He pulled out his phone. “I wanted to check something, and I got stopped by a headline—something about people falling into a black hole. Caught my attention at a weak moment. Smack. Hit the toothpaste shelf full speed.” 

Grinning, the old man rested his spoon on his empty bowl and tucked the used napkin underneath. “Good thing you didn’t hit a middle aisle. You could’ve set off a cascade of cat food.” He frowned. “What were you checking?”

A blush burned Bruno’s face. “There was such a variety of adult diapers. I had no idea.”

Dropping his gaze, a flush darkened his dad’s cheeks. “Aw, hell. I wish—”

“Don’t, dad. It’s not so bad. Everyone has stuff to deal with. That woman’s mom is depressed and needs a new perm every month.” He leaned in and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And likes to have her nails done. I’ll take a bag of Depends over that any day.”

The old man’s hand shook as he reached across the table and pressed his son’s fingers.

~~~

Though dark clouds scuttled in from the north and the temperature was dropping, there was still enough time to get in one more lap around the park. Bruno shook the last vestiges of tension from his shoulders and focused on a pair of squirrels chasing each other around a tree.

He promptly bumped shoulders with a woman jogging by on his left.

Huffing, she scowled and stopped. “Hey! Look where—”

She looked strangely familiar. Embarrassment and dripping sweat sent an uncomfortable chill down Bruno’s back. “Sorry. I was—”

“Oh, you again.” A smile quirked her lips. “But you’re not texting and driving, at least. Thank God for that.”

A park bench behind the central swing set beckoned.

“I’m ready for a break. You?”

She nodded. “Sure. Mom’s napping, so I sneak out on the weekends to get in a little R & R.”

Trudging across the dead winter grass, he puffed a laugh. “You call running rest and relaxation?”

She plodded alongside. “Don’t you?”

He waited while she brushed broken twigs aside and plopped down.

They breathed freely for a few moments, gazing at the quiet park.

A trio of squirrels scampered past.

Bruno wagged his finger. “It was their fault, really. I got caught up in their drama.”

Laughter filled the park. A happy sound. She settled into a giggle. “Yeah, it’s always something, isn’t it?”

He turned. “How’s your mom doing?”

She blinked and swallowed. “Okay. Not really thrilled with the red. She wants to go back to being a blond, but with her wispy threads, it wouldn’t be pretty. Need something to distract the eye, if you know what I mean.” Changing course, she clapped one mittened hand over the other and focused on him. “And your dad. How’s he?”

“Scarfs down my grilled cheese and tomato soup like it’s going out of style.”

A fresh laugh, softer, but honest and appreciative.

Two plump robins hopped nearby.

He nudged her and signaled with his eyes.

She smiled. “Wish I brought something. Breadcrumbs…”

He nodded.

She cleared her throat. “You ever bring your dad out to eat? Like to your kids’ place or—”

He tipped his head. “I would, but they live in California. An airport would be a nightmare.” He cut his glance aside. “Yours?”

“Naw. They’re not very patient with her. Nice enough when I do everything, but they’re mostly eat-outers.”

Like a bobblehead, he just nodded a bit.

The clouds parted, and a ray of sunshine illuminated the park, bathing the playground in golden light.

“I have a ramp up to the kitchen door. A neighbor helped with it. Got treads and everything.”

“Me too.”

Two of the squirrels perched on a branch, sitting amiably. The third bounded toward the swings.

“Your mom likes grilled cheese?”

Though her head stayed down, a smile lit her face brighter than sunshine. “She loves it.” She looked over, shifting in her seat, getting a firmer position. “I make a fantastic beef stew. Really easy to chew but nutritious as all get out.”

“Really?” He pulled out his phone. “You know, I read that black holes have been catching people while they sleep. Thought maybe you’d like to help me keep watch out for ‘em.” He cleared his throat, scrounging up his courage. “Maybe we could have dinner together sometime—your mom, my dad—us.”

A glimmer entered her eyes as her smile widened. “Oh, yeah. Got to keep our eye out for those pesky black holes. They swallow people alive, I hear, unless we help each other out.”

He stood and pointed across the park. “My place is just there. Dad’s got his own ideas about things—but he’s feisty enough to keep black holes at bay. Care to meet him?”

She stood and squared her shoulders. “Only if you’re willing to meet my mom. God knows what color her hair will be.”

He laughed as he nudged her forward. “Long as she hasn’t been swallowed whole—she’ll be all right with me.”

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/science-science-channel-5350597/

No Glaciers Needed

Chasm stood on the baked, pounded ground and stared at his shoes, profoundly aware that they were several sizes larger than the others lined up beside his. A cool breeze cascaded over his hot body. He could hear his mother’s words loud and clear, “Don’t get overheated, boyo, cause I can’t find any glaciers to cool you off this time of year.”

He forced his smile in check.

The kid next to him squirmed.

Chasm nudged him. “Don’t move, Oleg, or he’ll kill us.”

The boy heaved a strained, exasperated sigh.

Coach screamed, “Hey, you two! Give me five more!”

Oleg’s eyes widened with horror.

Chasm choked. “Wasn’t my fault!”

The twenty-eight boys held the line, observing in constrained silence as Chasm awkwardly led the smaller boy around the track, taking tiny steps to keep pace with his companion’s short strides.

Giggles broke the tense silence.

Coach, his arms crossed high over his barrel chest, stood on the sidelines grinning, his jaws masticating contraband chewing gum.

The blazing Luxonian sun seethed in a white sky, heat piercing through protective covering. Even the best eye protection was poor defense against the damaging rays.

A wonder more of us don’t go blind. Chasm wiped sweat off his brow as he jogged forward, his arms limp at his side. Three more…

Oleg stumbled.

Chasm reached out.

The boy fell limply in his arms.

“Drop him and finish your laps!” Clearly, coach enjoyed his work.

The watching boys froze, stiff as petrified rocks.

So many times, he’d come home burning with humiliation, a sorry excuse for a son, but his mother’s nudge combined with a healthy snort, always revived his drooping spirits. “Think you got it rough? Try being a giant woman! Then you’d know what rough looked like up close and personal. Giant guys are fine. But giant gals scare the hell out of most everybody, even Luxonian shape shifter-types. Lordy, they can morph into Ingoti Lava Lizards, but a seven-foot human woman sets ‘em giggling in weird ways.” Her black eyes flashed, and her ebony skin glistened as she jutted her chin, contempt oozing through every pour. Until a glint of humor discharged the poison. “Should thank their lucky suns I’m so good natured, or they might not be so powerful now.”

Chasm knew the story, oft repeated, how she managed to chase off a strange ship that landed in one of the busiest intersections of the capitol. No one knew who the aliens were or why they’d come. But the Luxonian crowd that gathered round had been profoundly grateful for Adah’s help. Unexpected as it was.

Oleg groaned.

Being the only refugee over seven feet tall, many boys looked to him for help. Chasm didn’t mind, but he wasn’t sure what to do most of the time. He looked around for help.

Coach sauntered forward. Unlike most Luxonians, his attitude sparked with resentment at the outsiders. Even though the human refugees had originally come to Lux by invitation, coach narrowed his eyes at every specimen he met, especially the boys he forced out under the sun “to keep them fit and healthy” as his job description decreed.

Killing us with kindness.

Chasm gripped Oleg’s limp body tighter.

Rex, a lanky kid, not nearly Chasm’s size but with an outsized spirit that towered above the average stepped from the disciplined line. “We’re done here.”

Coach turned his full glare on Rex’s impassive, staring eyes. “You think so?”

Rex nodded.

“How about I make you all do ten more?”

Rex peered along the line of watching boys.

Everyone knew that they lived at the mercy of their hosts—Luxonians who had accepted the burden of caring for a dying race of beings—but resentment had elbowed its way in over the years, making humans not so welcome.

Chasm’s heart clenched as his gaze darted from Rex to Oleg’s reviving form.

Oleg shook himself free and stood on shaky legs. He blinked as he stared at the coach. “Think you can kill me?”

Coach’s amused glance spoke volumes.

Rex waved at the line of boys ahead with a formal bow. “He can try. But we don’t have to let him.” He sauntered off the track.

The line wavered, eyes following but feet still.

Oleg gripped Chasm’s arm. “Let’s go.” He strode after Rex, panting but determined.

As the sound of footsteps padded after them, Chasm’s heart swelled. No matter his size, he finally filled his shoes. No glaciers needed.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo https://pixabay.com/illustrations/person-human-joy-sunset-sun-723558/

Between Worlds

Shailyn jerked upright in bed, jolted from the other world back into her own. The usual, odd discomfort dogged her as she peeled back the heavy bed covers, then trod to the bathroom for her daily ablutions.

I belong there haunted her thoughts as she tugged on her jeans and a heavy sweater, though she knew, realistically, she couldn’t live there. As a between-worlder, she was powerless to pick a permanent lodging.

Shivering in the cold morning air, she plodded to the kitchen and gratefully poured herself a cup of steaming coffee. Her daughter, Win, always got up first and made sure that the pot was full and piping hot before she left for work. Bless that girl.

Retreating to the comfort of the living room, Shailyn added a log to the burning embers in the woodstove and sat on the sturdy rocker before the big bay windows. February rain slanted across the glass as pine boughs swayed against the gray sky.

 Misty, her daughter’s tiny pup, scampered into the room and leapt into her lap, squirming with all the energy of young life.

Struggling to keep her coffee from spilling, Shailyn nudged the quadruped to a comfortable spot on her lap, took a sip of the dark brew, and then sat back and closed her eyes.  Dream images of herself traipsing along the muddy bank of a beautiful lake, a distant, untidy cottage, and a huge water bird charging with flapping wings over a line dug in the earth while intoning, “Stay where you belong!” sent confused sensations rippling over her body.

Pounding steps echoed down the staircase. Her eldest, Morgan, tromped to the kitchen, splashed coffee into his oversized mug, and then meandered to her side. His hair disheveled and dressed in dark jeans, a pullover sweater, and boots, he peered over his cup as he took his first hurried gulp.

Shailyn waited. She knew what was coming. Just like she knew what her answer would be. Though she’d have to gather strength from somewhere else to make her words believable.

“You’ll be there to pick her up, right?”

“Absolutely. Once I get my old bones ready to face the day.”

“May’s going to need all the help she can get, but I have to handle the newest crises breaking out at work.”

“You take care of your business, and I’ll do mine.”

A snort turned Shailyn’s gaze from the tears streaming down the window pane.

“Technically, she’s not your responsibility. She’s my stepdaughter.” He shook his head. “If only—”

“Stop!” She couldn’t handle if-onlys today. There was no changing the past. No bringing the dead back to life. She glanced at her son’s weary, wounded soul peeking through his gray-green eyes. “She’s all our responsibility—everyone who has a heart to love, should.”

“It’s a lot to ask—by all rights, you’d be in retirement now, enjoying your last days, not taking care of a disabled kid.”

The wind picked up as rage surged through Shailyn. “She’s not a disabled kid! She’s a wounded child. Just like you’re a wounded man, though your wounds are on the inside.”

Chastened, Morgan swallowed the last drops and eyed his mom. “Most are.” He trod to the kitchen, placed the cup on the counter, and called out as he yanked open the door. “She’d be ready at ten. The nurse will have all her stuff packed, and they’ll fold and load the wheelchair for you, so don’t mess with it. May can walk into the house with help. Just get her settled downstairs. I’ll do the rest when I get home.”

The picture of May’s imploring, chocolate brown eyes following her as she puttered around the house sent shivers down her arms. She frowned and bit her lip.

A glittery box stuffed into the bookshelf caught her eye. Jessica from church thought that she’d enjoy an “epic puzzle” in her old age and had sent her one with a thousand pieces. She nudged the pup’s warm body from her lap and rose to her feet. She waved to her son through the window.

~~~

The box-cover picture, a fairy child plucking a blue flower under the umbrella of a wide, red-spotted mushroom, while raindrops splattered against the sheltering roof and vibrant grass stems bent in gentle perfection, soothed Shailyn’s soul.

May pressed a border piece into place, her eyes shining at the mighty accomplishment. “I got this side done.”

“You’re quick. I’m only halfway through my edge.”

“They gave me lots of puzzles to do at the hospital.” May’s gaze traveled to the couch loaded with stuffed animals and three colorful blankets. “Giving me stuff makes them feel better, I think.”

Shailyn held a corner piece and considered her options. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to help. Or attempting to make you feel better.”

“They couldn’t keep mom alive or fix my back.” She shrugged. “Not in this world.”

Shailyn pressed her piece into place and sat back. She rubbed her cold hands. “I’m going to stoke the fire and check the stew. You want anything while I’m up?”

“You have any chocolate milk?”

“I’ve got milk and cocoa packets. If I get wild and mix them—well, we’ll see what happens.”

A grin peeked through May’s eyes.

~~~

Darkness had laid the landscape still and silent by the time Morgan slipped in the back door. He shoved the wheelchair against the wall and unfolded it, ready for action.

Shailyn met him in the kitchen. “There’s stew left. Though you’re lucky. May managed to work her way through two bowlfuls, much to my amazement.”

Staring through haggard eyes, Morgan pulled off his coat and tossed it on a chair. “She always amazes me. Like her mom. Resilient beyond belief.”

Until she wasn’t.

Shailyn shook her head. “Sit down and take a rest. I’ll get it for you.” She glanced at the ceiling, giving due notice to the room above. “She went to bed at eight-thirty. Not a peep since.” Shailyn pulled a plastic container from the refrigerator and poured the chunky liquid into a glass bowl. She placed it in the microwave and hit two.

Morgan leaned on the worn wooden table, resting his head on his hand. “She do okay? And you—it wasn’t too much?”

“Define too much.” Shailyn shrugged. “She put half a puzzle together at the speed of lightning, slurped down a large chocolate milk, put away two bowls of stew, and agreed to my syllabus for home school for the rest of the semester.”

“Ma, you sure you want—”

The microwave beeped repeatedly, warning that it could keep stew hot only so long.

Morgan stood and waved his mom off. “Sit; relax. I’ll get it.” He pulled the hot stew from the microwave, rummaged in the cupboard for bread, and plunked down on his chair, ready to dig into his assembled meal. He took a large scoop, savored it, and then stared at his mom, his eyebrows finishing his question.

Shailyn peeled a banana and sat opposite. “I’m hardly the best teacher in the world, but I can help her through her online classes. We don’t know what next year will look like, but for now, this is where she should be. You and Win manage this big, old rambling house; I keep it stocked with healthy dinners and fun snacks. We’re family. What else should I be doing—putting bigger puzzles together?”

“You could be traveling, seeing the world, visiting friends…”

“I could be laying in the cemetery, cold and stiff. Lots of could be’s. All fantasy. What is—makes the world go around. I’m right where I belong.”

His shoulders relaxing as the weight of a grievous month lifted just a bit, Morgan offered a lopsided grin.

~~~

After dressing in comfortable, warm sweats in the quiet of her room, Shailyn stretched out on her bed, turned off the light, pulled her blanket over her shoulders, and slipped into dreams that would take her away but could never keep her.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/sunset-nature-landscape-outdoors-3154715/

Richly Blessed

“He will be missed.”

Jacob read the quote twice before he put the fragile newspaper aside. Cleaning had never been his favorite job, but after his grandma passed two months before, he knew that he couldn’t sell her old farmhouse until it was completely cleaned out and that meant sorting through all the junk from her past. A long past full of cards, letters, mementos, pictures, and even great-granddad’s old house key. The woman saved everything.

He sighed, shifted his crouched position in the dim, dusty attic, and glanced at the carefully cut-out article again. Who was this man that she bothered to save his obituary? And was he really missed? He had died so long ago, those who cared were long gone. Doesn’t matter now.

“Jacob?”

Rosie’s voice, melodic and enticing, still sent chills up his arms. He could hardly believe she had married him and that they were expecting their first child in the spring. After sweeping the last stacks of papers off the shelf, Jacob bundled them into the over-filled plastic container and grunted as he hefted it to the top of the steps. “This is the last of it. I’m coming down now.”

With her rounded belly giving shape to her bright maternity top, Rosie peered up from the bottom step. “Don’t carry too much. You might fall.”

With a half-laugh, Jacob defied the silly notion and started down the narrow steps, slipped on the fifth, and landed with decided “Ugh!” and a sharp pain in his back.

As if to add insult to injury, the box tipped and spilled its guts all over the floor.

Suddenly commander and chief of healthcare, Rosie dove into action, her hands fluttering. “Stop! Stay where you are. Let me see if your—”

Ignoring her attention, Jacob tried to stand, then muffled a series of profanities as he fell again.

By late afternoon, Jacob had been x-rayed, found he had slipped a disk, and was sentenced to bed for the duration with enough pain killer and vegetable soup to keep him alive though not uncomplaining.

~~~

After arriving at their single-story ranch home, Rosie made the necessary phone calls, informing work, family, and friends that her “strong-man” was doing fine, though he wouldn’t be getting around for a few days.

Jacob could hear her voice from the bedroom as she prepared dinner, soothing away worries, insisting that she didn’t need any help, and glorying in the fact that she had tried to warn him, “But you know how he is…”

He considered popping another pill to dull the humiliation.

Cute as always but with a hint of smugness, Rosie toted in a tray just as the winter sun set. A roast beef sandwich with barbecue chips, coleslaw, and a glass of milk gladdened his eyes, bringing his salivary glands back to life, though he looked twice at the glass of milk. A faded newspaper article lay complacently under the fork.

“You need extra calcium. The doctor specifically mentioned that you should drink milk and get more exercise.”

Jacob’s brain spun, trying to think of a non-profanity-laden retort.

“Oh, and Mrs. Miller put the box in the car and carried it into the living room so we could go through it.” She tapped the paper. “I found this article on a great-great-uncle of yours. Sounds like he was quite a guy.”

His brain had frozen at the image of Mrs. Miller carrying the box to the car. “The woman is seventy-six years old! How could she carry—”

“Very carefully. She wouldn’t let me touch it because of the baby. And she knows how much we want to get the house cleaned out. Her son said he’d bring his boys over, you know the twins, Jim and Jerry, to do the last of the patching and painting. Then it’ll be fit for the realtor to put on the market.”

Picturing the middle-aged brothers, grizzled farmers who lived down the lane, Jacob stifled a groan. When did my life slip out of control? “Really, I think we should hire someone to—”

Rosie perched on the edge of the bed and shook her head, eternally patient wise-woman. “Don’t be ridiculous. There isn’t a carpenter to be had—no professional wants to go into these old farmhouses unless you want a complete refurbish job. Which we can’t afford. Jim and Jerry have done tons of work on their own place; they can handle this. We’ll pay them, and the house will be fine.” She nudged the milk closer, glanced pointedly at the article, and climbed to her feet. “Eat and rest. I’m going to see how many hearts and likes we got on Facebook.”

Oh, heck…  Jacob shoved the Facebook humiliation out of his mind and chomped down his meal. He ignored the article. But as he couldn’t eat it, there wasn’t a television or a computer within reach, and he had left his phone in the car, his fingers inched toward the yellowed newspaper.

He read it three times. His eyes filled with tears on the second round and flowed after the third. How could he have had such a relative and never heard? But then he remembered. Grandma had spoken of her Uncle Thomas, a priest who had served his flock in love and devotion, who had died unexpectedly. But he had never paid it much mind. Some old relative who had passed away long before his time.

Rosie hummed as she switched off the last of the lights, waddling closer, her happy disposition radiating through the house.

Suddenly, Jacob envisioned the web of interconnected lives. The great uncle who had powerfully influenced his mother, who had formed him. The long descent of relatives who arrived and left the human stage in numberless succession, changing the landscape for each generation.

Rosie stopped in the doorway; her eyes widened in alarm as she stared at him. “What’s wrong, honey?” She hustled close, arms ready to snuggle and comfort.

Jacob breathed her unique scent, soaked in her gentle touch, and knew, beyond all shadow of a doubt, he had been richly blessed.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo: https://pixabay.com/photos/newspaper-daily-newspaper-pages-664578/

Define Real

—Lux—

Teal watched Arc’s holographic message twice and sighed. He passed his hand over the holopad; the wavering image disappeared.

Her touch soft, Sienna placed her hand on his arm, slipping around from behind. “What’s wrong?”

The thrill of her unexpected touch dissipated too quickly for Teal’s comfort. He glanced from the low couch to the shelf packed with OldEarth crafts—a decorated pot from Aram’s clan, a woven blanket from Ishtar’s clan, even one of Neb’s forgotten obsidian knives. He shrugged and turned away. “Arc’s worried. So, he’s got Zuri worried. And before you know it, I’ll be worried.”

Sliding around her husband’s waist, Sienna snuggled under his arm. A smile played on her lips. “Cerulean has been begging to go. Maybe…”

“I should have followed up before this. It’s just—”

Sienna nodded. “It was a big event. Everyone talked about it, but then, things died down. We’ll probably never know.”

Teal padded to the window and peered across the Luxonian skyline, the suns setting and moons rising. “Things are happening, changing. I don’t think humanity will ever be the same.”

“Can they handle the responsibility?”

A snort sounding rude to his own ears, Teal shrugged. “Of course, they can’t. No one can. It’s impossible. The very notion. God-man? We don’t even dare define—”

“Children can imagine what adults don’t dare dream of—the limitlessness of youth, perhaps?”

Teal rubbed his forehead. “I can’t even begin to go there. It’s has to be a misunderstanding. Wishful thinking.”

“And if it’s not? If it is real…” She joined him at the window, sharing the view.

Heat working through his body, Teal swallowed. “Define real.” A soft sound caught his ear. He glanced over his shoulder.

Cerulean, youthful, eager, and ready for anything stood in the open doorway. “Ark sent a message. He has something for me.”

Teal closed his eyes. Oh, God. He opened his eyes and met his son’s innocent gaze. “I’m sure he has.” He peered at his wife. They both knew. No one would be the same.

—Crestar—

Ark zipped up his bio-suit, dragged on his boots, and glared at the pod swimming energetically in the murky pool against the back wall.

The door swished open, and Zuri tromped in, his head and hands bare, but wearing a modified version of Ingoti armor. “You ready?”

Ark huffed through his breathing helm; bubbles rose. “Now or never.”

The pool swished spasmodically, a riot of bubbles rising. The pod stopped and hung weightless, its large eyes staring, imploringly at Ark.

Zuri halted and glanced back. “What’s—I mean—who’s that?”

Ark cleared his throat and tugged at the collar of his bio-suit. “Uh, my son, Tarragon.”

Zuri’s eyes couldn’t have opened any wider if he’d had implants. “What? You never told me you had a son!” He slapped Ark on the back. Hard. “Congratulations!”

Stomping to the doorway, his boots smacking the ground with emphasis, Ark aimed for his escape. “It just sort of happened.”

Zuri swiveled his head as if testing the limits of his joints. “What does that mean? You have a son and you’re—what—irritated?”

Stopping on the threshold, Ark waved all six tentacles and forced a smile at the pod. “Just out of sorts, really. It wasn’t expecting it.” He scowled at Zuri. “I have important work to do. We both do.” He turned his back on the pod. “There’s a new player on Earth, a mystery being, who has a bet to win…a challenge. He’s trouble, make no mistake.”

“In proper diplomatic response, we’re going to…?”

“Meet Song and discuss possibilities. Then we return to Earth.”

“I thought we couldn’t.”

“Couldn’t is strong word. Shouldn’t perhaps…” Ark clumped out the door.

Zuri looked back.

The pod waved, it’s eyes over-wide and sad.

Ark knew the look. He simply refused to see it.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/space-planet-stars-cosmos-sci-fi-5720414/

What About Me?

From OldEarth Georgios Encounter…

Noman smoothed down his tunic as he paced before the wooden table laid with the evening meal of wine, boiled fish, nuts, olives, bread, honey, cheese, dates, and pomegranates.

Abbas was coming to see him.

He played the words over in his head. Abbas was coming… to see him… To see him

The laughter of boys crashed against his ears. He stopped before the window of the Hospitia and peered at the bucolic scene.

Three boys chased each other across hard packed earth. Their clothes tattered, their feet bare, and their eyes bright.

A shout split the air, and the children scattered.

A gesturing heavyset man, flushed and furious, jerked forward. “Didn’t ya hear me! Get back to work, you fools, or I’ll cut your useless legs from under your bodies.”

An old man, dressed in a long white tunic with a fine robe draped over, stepped close upon the angry man’s heels. He raised his hand as he passed.

All bombastic bravado fled. The heavy man bowed low, scraping the ground in a servile fashion.

Unimpressed, the old man stopped and peered at the window.

Noman caught his breath.

Abbas had come. To see him.

~~~

Noman poured wine into an ornate cup and passed it across the table. The food sat untouched. Neither needed to eat but that had never stopped them before. He spread his hands wide, a genial host. “Please, enjoy.”

Abbas, ever the master of kindness, broke off a piece of fish, slipped it between his lips and chewed with a hum of pleasure. “Very nice.”

Pride fought gratitude in the playground of Normand’s mind. He smirked. “I picked it out myself. Best fish this side of the Divide, they say.”

Abbas choked and grabbed the goblet for a quick swallow. He wiped his lips with his sleeve, and leaned against the hard-baked wall, his penetrating gaze searching. “You know about The Evidence?”

Noman wasn’t going to play. “Evidence?” He smirked. “An attempt to make humans appear worthier than they are. A trick, really, to see how we’ll react.”

Abbas stroked his chin. “Is that all, you think?”

“I know so!” Frustration needled Noman like a thousand biting insects. “I told you. They are a mere plaything. A toy. He just wants to see how we’ll respond. If we throw ourselves at his mercy and beg for forgiveness—”

“We need forgiveness?”

“Of course not. But if we were fools, we might think so. Lesser beings are always ready to beg. It’s what they do. Humiliate themselves before greatness.”

Abbas sighed. “You’d certainly never do that.” He rose from the bench and strode to the window.

A little boy sat on the ground, playing with round stones. A sparrow landed and hopped nearby. The boy watched, then raised his hand, a stone poised. The bird pecked at the ground, unconcerned.

Noman stepped over and propped his arm against the wall, his gaze fixed on the opposite side of the room. “We know our true place in the universe.”

The boys’ gaze softened as he watched the bird, his brows knit together. Slowly, he lowered his arm and dropped the stone. With his other hand, he dug into a pocket.

Abbas sighed. “Do we?” He glanced aside. “Really?”

“Our power informs us.” Noman threw his arms wide. “I could remake this entire village into a treasure of pleasure—if I wanted.”

Abbas’ gaze returned to the scene.

The boy held out his hand, palm up. Breadcrumbs offered.

The wary sparrow hopped close and stopped. With a cock of the head, it eyed him.

Smiling, the boy tipped his hand and scattered the crumbs within easy reach. Eagerly, the bird snapped up the morsels.

“Steward.”

Noman cocked his head and stared Abbas. “Excuse me?”

 “I keep hearing the word in my mind—like a verse, a song.”

“Ah! Song—the Bauchi witch. She’s always playing mind games.”

Brooding irritation flooded Abbas’ eyes. “No, not that Song. A song. Music. Harmony and melody. Beauty in sound.”

Noman shrugged. “I’ve never understood the concept.” He peered out the window.

The boy grinned as the bird pecked the crumbs.

Annoyed, Noman shouted, “Go on, boy! You’ve no business here.”

Abbas sighed. He started for the door.

Jolted, Noman gripped his arm. “Where are going?”

“You may be right. Song may be exactly who I’m thinking of.”

“But what about me—about my mission?”

Abbas peered at Noman’s fingers gripping his tunic. “I say that you’ve underestimated The Event. There’s more to humanity than meets the eye.” He jerked free. “I take my leave of you now. But I suggest that you don’t do anything—you’ll regret.”

Cold seeped through Noman. Regret? Not possible. Chilling that Abbas could even suggest the word. He bowed and peered at the door.

Abbas had come. Now, it was time for him to go.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/food-platter-cheese-honey-snack-3466878/

New Generation

House, Deserted, Abandoned, Old, Landscape, Prairies

Elmer knew better than to believe in ghosts. But when he awoke with sweat beading on his forehead and the sensation that he had just returned from a long journey through wild-lands with only his body and wits intact, he knew that something otherworldly was at work.

His wife stirred at his side. She slapped the blankets, her face half-smashed against the pillow, her eyes squeezed shut. “Don’t get up…too early.”

Too early or too late? He pressed his chest trying to steady his galloping heart. “Hon-honey?”

One eye opened. Not a flicker of interest.

“Do you remember going to a desert town with broken-down buildings and getting kidnapped?”

Lana sat up, groggily rubbing her fingers through her short tufts of hair.

Elmer swallowed the lump in his throat. What happened to her luscious brown locks?

She steered her gaze over her husband, taking the long tour. Dubious. Pity?

His hands shaking, Elmer threw off the wrinkled sheets and stalked to the bathroom. He swiped on the cold water, splashed his face, straightened, and snatched a towel. He wiped the drips running down his baggy t-shirt. Have I lost weight? He sucked in a shuddering breath. “What day is it?”

Lana padded across the bedroom. “Sunday, goof. New Year’s Day, remember?”

An electric bolt sizzled through his body. “N-new year?”

With a snarky laugh, Lana strolled into the bathroom wearing a calf-length night dress that should look sexy as hell, but didn’t.

Elmer stared. Why?

She leaned her head on his shoulder, a buddy-nudge, nothing wifely about it. “You remember the year, right?”

Terror gripped Elmer, nearly closing his throat. “Twenty-twenty—”

“Ha-ha! Got ja!” She smacked him, grinning like a lottery winner. “You had a whole year to get used to the thirties, and now you’ve slipped-up. Used to make fun of me!”

His gaze shifted from his wife to the mirror. Where did these grey streaks come from? His eyes—haggard and…vacant? Lord, have mercy.

Frowning, Lana shoved off and crossed her arms, the tilt of her body accenting the sharpness of her bony frame. “Twenty-thirty-one! We toasted and the VR bots cheered. Remember?”

Elmer slapped his face. “Ten years?” He retreated to the bedroom, marched to the window, and lifted the curtain. A barren square of dead grass met his eyes. Only a rotting stump stood in testimony of past life. “What the—” He turned and glared at Lana. “Where’s our backyard?”

“Backyard?” She tiptoed forward and pressed her cold hand against his forehead. “You feeling all right?” She leaned in and stared deep into his eyes. “Time for your new-gen?”

A chill ran down his spine as he stared at the strange woman.

An elegant roll of the eyes. She flounced to the bedside, yanked open a drawer, and gripped a tube. She shook it, grinning. “You skipped your last dose—see what happens? Bad dreams, memory troubles… You need a pop and time inside.” Swinging the tube, she strode out of the bedroom.

His stomach dropped. Dragging it along behind, Elmer followed like a wary dog.

He faced what should have been his living room—a modern setup with overstuffed chairs, a broad couch, a large screen television centered on the back wall, matching end tables with iron lamps—opening to a large island-dominated kitchenet.

He froze.

Two worn chairs faced a bank of curved screens.

His gaze scraped the bare walls and grey floor. Cold. Dingy. Crumps, dust, stains, clutter. Broken family portraits lay scattered. One oil painting, ripped on the left side, stood propped on the floor, a forgotten project.

Elmer licked his lips. “Wh-where’s the Christmas tree?”

A snort and hollow laughter. “Christmas tree! What the hell is wrong with you?” She lumbered to the kitchen and dragged a chipped cup from the sink. She slapped the faucet, let water fill the container, plopped in a white pill, and watched it sizzle. She held out her offering. “Drink up!”

His whole body trembling, Elmer backed up, his hands raised. “What’s going on?”

Confusion raced irritation over Lana’s face. “I’ve heard of memory lapses, but this is a bit much. What’s the last thing you remember?”

Elmer edged his way to the nearest chair and plopped down, his body conforming to the seat, oddly comforting. “Christmas. We stopped at church for our ten-minute visit, came home, did our family video, then opened gifts. Jason gave us that new Virtual Reality Game…”

Lana sneered. “Ancient history, Elm. Christmas…church—mythology. Video chats for work, yeah, but who cares about family—it’s only DNA.” She wrinkled her nose and held out the cup.

He accepted it and sniffed. Nothing.

She tapped her wrist, bringing the screens to life. Rotating images flashed—a rainforest, a medieval castle, and a desert with broken down buildings. “Time to get back to the real world.”

~~~

Sucking in a heaving breath, Elmer shot up in bed, his heart racing. He glanced wildly around.

Lana, her long brown hair running riot over the blankets, lay on her side, her face in peaceful repose.

He heaved a long sigh and softly inched out of bed. Padding to the bathroom, he stared in the mirror. No grey streaks. A little bloodshot and brooding, but definitely his eyes. Thank God.

“Honey?”

Elmer froze.

“I’m so tired. Get me that New-gen Marge gave me last night, okay?”

Blinking, Elmer trotted to the living room and snatched the curtain away from the bank of windows. A soft blanket of snow covered their miniature backyard. The maple tree still standing in the center. Furniture, Christmas tree, paintings on the wall. Familiar. Home. He released a long breath.

“Honey?” Her voice had risen to a whine.

Like a wolf approaching a strange den, he sidled toward the kitchenet. The flash of a curved screen glinted from under the tree as he went by.

A red box with huge letters “A New Generation” screamed on the central island.

His fingers trembling, Elmer opened the box.

~~~

Elmer closed the door, padded to his bedroom, and flopped onto the bed.

Sitting propped against a bank of colorful pillows with a book in her hands, Lana peered at him through narrowed eyes. “I still don’t get why you had to have the whole family over.”

Elmer shrugged.

“And what happened to the new VR set Jason gave us?”

Elmer kicked off his shoes and slid back onto the pillows. He wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “We don’t need it.”

She shook her head. “Like Marge’s gift?” She laid the book on her lap. “You know, you’ve been a different guy since New Year’s Day.”

Elmer exhaled and pulled his wife close, his passion real and desire rising. “I hope so, sweetie. I hope so.”

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey

https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings 

http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

 Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/house-deserted-abandoned-old-4828660/

Vacation Paradise

Fantasy, City, Forward, Building, Atmospheric, Evening

Sven massaged the woman’s flesh with renewed vigor. His last day! Visions of vacation paradise floated before his eyes.

A groan froze his fingers. Opps! He peered down at the figure sprawled on the table under his skilled hands. Perhaps the warm up massage was a bit much for her first time.

Sliding off the edge of middle age, Ms. Tolliver had stumbled into his office last week, complaining about shoulder and neck pain. He had done a quick check, diagnosed the problem—frozen shoulder undoubtedly—lots of ladies her age suffered from the common ailment, and set up a schedule for Physical Therapy three times a week for three weeks. He only had to manage the first visit, and then, while he was gone—having the time of his life—his aides would take over. By the time he returned, she’d be ready to beat her university peers at a high stakes game of Zinzinera.

Sven frowned as he peered down at her. She didn’t look very good at the moment. Her color seemed off somehow. Granted lots of ladies liked to dye their skin all sorts of weird colors these days. The multi-colored zebra look rather turned his stomach, but hey, who was he to make fashion comments. It was the year 4798 after all, and humanity knew how to have fun…

Speaking of fun…his mind trailed away to the playground he was going to enjoy for twenty whole days.

After the designated warming pad to relax the stretched tendons, Sven handed Ms. Tolliver a list of twelve routine exercises she could practice at home.

She wrinkled her nose, peering at the datapad as if she wasn’t sure what it all meant.

Annoyance crept over Sven. Good golly, was she an idiot? “They’re the same exercises I just did with you. Just repeat them at home each day and come in on your scheduled visits. You’ll be good as new in no time.”

Doubt clouded her eyes.

Fury boiled up in Sven. She doubts me? Me? Why, I’m the best physical therapist on the entire island. He had won the Australian “Healthy Lives” award six years running. Six! Bloody idiot. She didn’t deserve his attention. Just as well that he’d leave her to his aides. They weren’t as good as he was…well, that hardly mattered. They were good enough. He had trained them, after all. NewContinetalEurpose wanted him to speak at their next Inter-Alien symposium on how physical therapy could assist communication in mixed marriages. A bit of a stretch in his mind—after all, physical therapy wasn’t a cure-all. But heck, who was he to refuse the honor?

Ms. Tolliver tapped his arm.  “Sorry, but I’m not sure I understand. I mean I don’t think I can—”

A bell chimed.

Closing time!

Sven’s heart pounded in anticipation while his voice rose above the tumult of various therapists, aides, and clients preparing to leave for the day. “You’ll be just fine! Go home, put your feet up, and relax.” He didn’t exactly mean to nudge her toward the door, but the silly idiot didn’t seem to realize that it was time to go.

In a matter of minutes, he had loaded his packed bags on the transport and was heading off planet to his dream vacation. He deserved some fun. After all, he worked hard and no one knew how to thank Sven better than he did.

Three weeks later…

Chenier grabbed a bottle of polish and tried once again to wipe the blood spot off her uniform. It wasn’t a big spot, but part of it smeared her embroidered nametag—Chenier Dobson, Physical Therapist Aide. Marcus had one just like it, except of course, his stated his name, Marcus Arius, and there was no blood spot on his. He had kept his distance when the poor woman started to bleed out.

Chenier sighed. She didn’t regret her actions. There was little she could have done to change the outcome. But she did think her boss had been a little remise. In fact, he had bungled the whole affair. Complete records were due on her datapad by the end of the day. Perhaps they would give her a better idea of what had really happened.

The chime signaled the start of a new day. She glanced at the roster streamed to the wallboard. A full week of patients waiting for relief from pain.

Marcus trotted near and leaned in, whispering, “He’s back.”

Fear shivered down Chenier’s spine “Does he know, you think?”

“Not by the look on his face.” Marcus sneered. “He’s been having the time of his life. His mother could’ve died, and he’d probably shrug it off.”

Chenier frowned. “His mother died seven years ago and, from the records, he doesn’t have much to do with his DNA relations.”

Marcus heaved a sigh and pressed his colleague’s shoulder. “Don’t expect too much.” He glanced at the line of men and women shuffling into the room. “It’s our job to relieve pain and loosen up tight joints. No one could’ve known Ms. Tolliver’s condition. She never said anything. So, let it go. Don’t even bother telling him. He won’t care.”

Chenier bit her lip as she watched her friend stride away.

Sven sauntered near, raising one hand in languid salute. “So, how are things? I’ve had the best vacation of my life!”

Chenier nodded. She squinted. Something seemed off about his color. A tinge green, perhaps? She shrugged the thought away. “You had a good time, I take it.”

“Of all the playgrounds off-planet, Corpus is the absolute best. I’ve already made reservations to go back next season.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “Can’t get too much of a good thing, I always say.” He looked around. “Everything as I left it?”

Chenier braced herself. “Well, there was one case, Ms. Tolliver…”

Sven yawned and stretched. “I need a little PT myself. Been having a bit of pain in my shoulder.” He rubbed his neck. “It got a little vigorous at one point…” He grinned. “If you know what I mean.”

Chenier stuck to her point like plaster to the wall.  “Ms. Tolliver died on her third visit. Apparently, she suffered from—”

“That old bitty? She couldn’t follow directions if there were written onto her synapsis. Don’t worry about it.” Alarm spread across his face. “Unless someone here—”

“No it wasn’t our fault. It’s just that she had a pre-existing condition. She had—”

“Oh, well, then. Forget it. As long as it wasn’t out fault. I mean, old women die. Happens all the time. We’re Physical Therapists. We’re not God. Can’t fix everyone, you know.” He smiled down at his well-trained aide. “Just get on with your work.” He rolled his shoulders. “I’ll get Marcus to give me a bit of a work out. Gosh but I’m feeling a stiff today.”

Chenier watched him stumble across the padded floor, his arms stiffly at his side. “Serves him right if he does have a pulled joint or two.” She shrugged, checked the roster, and called on her first patient.

~~~

A week later, Chenier stood before the open vault, tapping her fingers against her thigh. She hated this place. Sweat dripped down her back, and she remembered with chagrin that she’d forgotten her deodorant this morning. Of all days too. Fear stank, and she was always afraid at these things.

When Marcus strolled up, relief surged through her. “Thank, God. I was thinking you might not show.”

Marcus held up his datapad. “I’m designated secretary. The Inter-Alien Alliance wants a record. Apparently this is now considered a dangerous trend.” He smirked. “Guess there is such a thing as having too much fun.”

Chenier pouted. “Ms. Tolliver didn’t do anything wrong. She just didn’t think to mention that she had just come back from vacation. Who would?”

Marcus lifted his hand authoritatively. “Sven should’ve seen the signs…”

With a sigh, Chenier shook her head. “If he had cared to see the danger for her, he might’ve see it for himself. Funny that.”

Marcus snorted. “Yeah, well, once I get his remains sent off, I’m taking a vacation myself.”

Chenier’s eyes widened. “Where to?”

Marcus laughed. “Me? Oh, I’m just going home to spend time with my DNA relations. As for Sven’s remains? Well, I’m sending them to Vacation Paradise. It’s where he always wanted to be.”

Read aloud with other fun sci-fi stories on…

Bad Science Fiction Read Poorly ~By Dick and Jay

https://anchor.fm/bsfrp/episodes/Hazard-Pay–with-Special-Guest-A–K–Frailey-Overexposure—Vacation-Paradise—The-Solar-Pump-Archipelago-elt2m7

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey

https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings

http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo: https://pixabay.com/photos/fantasy-city-forward-building-2705034/

For Me?

An old woman and her sandwich saved my life. Not that I was starving. I wasn’t. In fact, I hadn’t had an appetite in three days. Moreover, I had no wish to live. She didn’t know that. But, still, she wouldn’t let me die.

Mom reeked of respectability and intelligence. She could entertain a crowd, outpace a runaway train, and beat the devil himself to the punch line. And she could outdrink all the other moms at our daycare center. Her liver didn’t appear to mind. Her brain cells did. But they didn’t let on until much later.

The winter I turned twenty, my world froze hard and deep. Not that December was ever particularly warm in Chicago. But that year, the trip home to Milwaukee on the Greyhound bus left me shivering even after I got inside Mom’s house. The holidays were tough. Lots of memories. Not the jolly kind. But I faced the season with all the joy I could muster. After all, Mom loved Christmas. It was the day after Christmas that got her down.

When I bustled through the door, a blue-green Christmas tree about six inches high with holes for lollipops stood on the phone stand. A rainbow of candies stuck out on each side, aching to send a diabetic into insulin shock. An adorable miniature Santa with his cutesy reindeer attached to his well-appointed sled stood ready for takeoff at the edge of the coffee table. Various Santas, elves, and other decorative pictures adorned the walls. The Christmas tree was bare, waiting for my brother, Jack, and I to do the honors. Which we did with cups of cocoa near at hand and mom’s eyes twinkling.

She sat regally, her evening drink resting in her grasp, comfortably, like the old friend it was. She glowed at our progress and cheered us on with only an occasional, “Missed a spot,” which we would amend with clumps of tinsel and shots of laughter.

God, it was good to be home. I couldn’t think why I had dreaded it.

During the whole Greyhound ride across the snowy landscape, my stomach had churned. Cityscapes and rural townships had passed in picturesque glory. Yet I had only smelled the dank odor of bodies crushed into seats, heard the overworked and underpaid—or so he said—driver grumble, and felt the crack in the seat where the ragged plastic rubbed into my jeans.

Now, as Christmas songs played and snow fell in fat flakes, my brother and I decorated the tree, and my mom watched—happiness pooling in her eyes—I wondered at my moodiness. Why was I always so darn glum? Couldn’t I just relax and enjoy myself?

So I did. I enjoyed the gift exchange. Early Mass. The open house when mom’s friends came and sampled her dark fudge and the variety of snacks we had laid out. I savored every happy smile, every teasing joke, even washing the mountain of dishes in warm sudsy water. There was a reason for the season, and I knew what it was. Love. Joy. Peace on Earth. Goodwill toward men.

After everything was cleaned and put away, exhaustion hit. I lay in my attic room staring at the blackness, as there was no window to peer through. My first year of teaching had left me bewildered and insecure. Was I really cut out to lead kids to educational enlightenment? So far I hadn’t had a whole lot of luck getting anyone to shut up long enough to define the week’s spelling words, much less discover the astonishing exploits of early explorers or memorize the time’s tables. Who knew that eight-year-olds could get so rowdy? Sheesh. Five months in and my teaching fantasy had cracked under the pressure of thirty-one hyperactive little kids. Didn’t take much to make me tumble. But it was a job. That took me away from home.

Why? Mom had been great that year. Life was good. Be happy. I fell asleep convinced that my pep talk had done me good.

Morning came. I knew because the sun rose and nearly blinded me when I went outside to see how much snow had fallen through the night. I stood on the porch amazed at the beauty of fresh snow spread over the neighborhood. Dressed in white caps, the houses along the street matched like siblings at a family reunion. The expanse of woods in the distance put seasonal greeting cards to shame. Even the university across the street arched its towers and pinnacles in newfound pride at thrusting beyond—not just gross ignorance—but the current weather conditions.

“Katherine!”

I froze. Perhaps not literally but certainly figuratively. The tone, the volume, the acid ‘tude told me that Christmas was over even though the season had just begun.

“Come here!”

I didn’t need to respond verbally. She knew I would come. She could hear the front door close no matter how softly I pressed the latch into place. She would hear my footsteps, no matter how carefully I tread. She would know, with some kind of extra-sensory freaky-weirdness when I stood in her doorway.

“Damn you! I said come here. Now!”

Jack had left early. He had only come home for a couple of days. The best days. No fault of his that he had to return to work. Before things got out of hand. Again. He always said that he was older and wiser. He was right.

I faced mom alone. Well, not entirely alone.

At Mass, I often stared at the lights, the windows, the statues, anywhere but at the tabernacle. Or the altar. The priest swept in and out of my peripheral vision so often, I only noticed the color of his vestments, not his face or form. The vestments rippled deep red.

But that Christmas my eyes had strayed. The golden tabernacle glowed, as if in a spotlight. Must be the sun on the snow, I reasoned. Yet it perplexed me. No slanting rays reached that far. As I sat there, battling my inner demons, I finally settled down and faced the gold box. The house of God. The home of faith. The reason for the season. And for an electrifying moment, I knew that Someone lived inside that box.

“Yes, mom?”

Her demands were the same as they had been the year before. Her fury spewed forth at the usual rate. She drank and smoked, nearly setting her bed on fire that night. Numbness came to the rescue. As always. Meals prepared. Refused. I took down the decorations. Perhaps to hurry the season along. The tree got sent to the curb. Tinsel froze on the branches.

Sunday afternoon, I took the Greyhound bus back to Chicago.

As I peered out the window, avoiding every possible human encounter, I decided that I just couldn’t care anymore. Like every kid who had been lied to, I had struggled for so long to believe that perhaps I had simply misunderstood. That a lie wasn’t really a lie. I hadn’t been tricked. And heaven and hell weren’t the same place.

My appetite had died the moment mom called my name in that tone. Too chicken to kill myself outright, after all, it was a sin to do that, right? I figured I just didn’t have to fight to stay alive anymore. I could let death have what despair already prepared, an empty soul.

It was my resolution. Die. As simply and as easily as possible. Before the New Year rolled around, so I wouldn’t have to worry about breaking any promises.

In Chicago, I lived in a house with an old woman named Patricia. I paid a meager sum from my meager salary and put medicinal drops in her eyes every night. A fair exchange. She didn’t ask much of me. We lived across the street from the church, so she attended social gatherings to her heart’s content. She also kept a stack of sultry romances on a chair in her living room. Considering her advanced years, I found her selection rather astonishing. Apparently, she didn’t have any cardiovascular issues.

It was noon when I climbed the steps to her home that she had lived in with her husband of forty years; she had the pictures to prove it. I naturally had to pass through the living room to get to the stairway in order to sneak up to my attic apartment. Painted a sky blue with one window facing north and one south. Not that I could see much more than various roofs and a few stray birds, but it was adequate. And adequate was all I had asked for.

I slipped inside, shut the door ever so softly, quite certain that she’d be napping in her chair and nearly jumped out of my skin when she sprang out from the kitchen like one of those New Year’s Eve’s poppers that idiots blow in other people’s faces. Like that’s funny or something?

No matter.

She grinned. A Cheshire cat would’ve been proud.

“Katherine? You’re home!”

I hate it when people state the obvious and then wait. As if they really want confirmation of reality. “Uh. Yeah.”

“Oh, good! I just made a sandwich! And I’ve got a nice glass of cocoa ready! Here! Come in and get warmed up!”

Dang. What was up with all the exclamation marks? Her whole body shivered with the delight of a pen smacking the paper with a dot at the end of an exclaim.

“Uh. No. Thanks. I really appreciate it. But I’m not hungry.” No, I didn’t tell her the truth. There is no good way to tell an eighty-something old woman who has survived the demise of her beloved husband, the ravages of breast cancer, the Great Depression, and a World War that I’d given up on life and wanted to starve myself to death as an easy way out.

She shook her head.

What? She couldn’t just shake her head and smile at me like that. It wasn’t fair. I hated my life. My mom’s manic-depressive, schizoid, personality disorder ruined everything. I couldn’t hope. I couldn’t live and be happy. Life was a damned lie and that was all there was to it.

“I made grilled tuna with chips!”

In a moment of insane distraction, I actually tried to figure out whether she meant she had grilled the chips with the tuna or if she just screwed with syntax like a possessed scrabble demon.

Bloody hell but that woman was determined. But so was I. My misery must end. I would not eat another bite of food till…well… Gee. Killing yourself was frowned upon, and I might not get a seat at the Heavenly table. So what? I clamped my lips shut.

Then I made a huge mistake. I stood still and let her look at me. Really look. And she saw. Tears formed. All cheer fled. Compassion arrived. And ran me over.

She took my arm and started chatting. A blue jay at the bird feeder filling in all her feathered friends on recent gossip could not have done any better. I hardly noticed when she led me into the warm kitchen and pressed my shoulder hard enough to force my knees to buckle so that I actually sat at the Formica kitchen table. The grilled tuna sat on a plate with little flowers on the border. The chips spilled around the edge. A cup of cocoa sat within easy reach.

“For me?”

It was her question. Not mine. I should have been the one to ask. I should have wondered how she knew I was coming in early. Or why she was fixing me lunch when she never had done so before.

But no. She asked if I would eat to please her. To satisfy some longing she had to watch a miserable, disappointed, despairing woman eat a grilled tuna sandwich at her plastic table.

“Okay.”

So I ate the stupid 2000-something calorie meal and watched as she bustled about the kitchen in do-nothing activity that mystified me. I ate every blessed crumb and drank the dregs of the cocoa only slightly surprised that there was a tiny Jesus face on the bottom of the cup.

When I slipped into bed that night, I looked out the window at the sky. Blackness filled the upper echelons of the cityscape, but a few stars twinkled, determined, I guess, not to let the night speak for them.

Christmas was what I had expected, disappointing, yet enthralling none-the-less. Confusion and grief had blanketed my soul. But the light from a golden box spoke of a presence beyond my sight. And an old woman fed me.

I will die someday. But not in despair.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey

https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings

http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

 Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/girl-moonlight-night-photography-5279250/

OldEarth Georgios Encounter

Prologue

Noman surveyed the white walls, considered the silence of the empty tomb, and knew that hell existed. He wiggled his sand-encrusted toes and straightened, his long, loose tunic rippling with the movement. Sweat dripped down his back as blazing sunlight glared from an unrepentant blue sky.

Where was Abbas now?

With a smothered curse, he shifted his gaze away from the gapping hole. There was no point in torturing himself with what might have been. If only Abbas had listened. If only someone had cared enough to believe him. But it was too late. He was on Earth, the challenge had been made, and he could not unmake it. He could only prove them wrong.

Abbas’ face appeared before his eyes. A man he could have loved and served heart and soul. Instead, he had another mission. Even love had its limit.

A squeal turned his attention. A woman stood frozen on the rocky path, her eyes wide with fear.

A scorpion poised in her path, ready for attack.

Bumbling woman! Humans had an ever-ready supply of idiocy. He stepped forward. Stopped. Why should he? What was this archaic inclination to assist lesser beings? The very image of Abbas. Noman stayed in the shadows.

A young man jogged forward and froze. He glanced from the scorpion to the woman.

Her voice shaking, the woman covered her mouth with her trembling hand. “I was bitten once, nearly killed me.”

The youth leapt aside, grabbed a stone and whisked it at the pest.

The venomous creature scuttled away.

Clutching her chest, the woman swayed, closing her eyes.

The young man held her upright, gripping her elbow in his hand. “You’re safe. It’s gone.”

She opened her eyes, gratitude in every feature. “Thank you. My name is Anna. I’m going home—I was too scared to think.”

“I’m Georgios. Now worries. Will you be able to—?”

She clasped her hands with a formal bow in humility and gratitude.

After a parting smile, Georgios sped off.

With a glance ascending like a prayer, the young woman paced forward, a serene expression replacing her former anxiety.

Noman stepped forward and shook his head.

The scorpion was still nearby. Its mission to paralyze and eat its prey had not changed. Mutant kindness meant nothing. One day, she would not be so lucky.

He peered along the path Georgios had taken. The perfect object lesson. Georgios would prove his point to Abbas. Kind-hearted fools—the best argument for humanity’s humiliation.

~~~

Ark stared at the vial clasped in his mate’s tentacles. She was grinning. He had no such intention. Still, it was an honor, though an unexpected and unwelcome one.

“Are you absolutely sure?”

Meta shook the clear tube. “As sure as a triple check can be.”

Immersed in his studies in the laboratory, Meta should’ve had the sense to wait until they were in the pool to share this news. But what can one expect from a female? They’re always so blasted unpredictable. “Watch where you put your tentacles” and “Don’t turn your eyes from a female in the lab” were two oft repeated truisms bandied about the private male laboratories. The females had their own scientific centers, ones Ark avoided with due care.

He adjusted his nostril tube and rubbed the cilia on the top of his head. What he wouldn’t give to speak with Teal at this moment.

“You will own it, won’t you?” Meta was clearly in no mood for obfuscations.  

“I’ll run my own tests, if you don’t mind. But in end, if as I suspect is true and the pod is mine, then, of course, I will own it.”

Meta exhaled, bubbles forming around her breathing tube, and her smile widening. “Good. Once I give birth next cycle, it’s all yours!”

A crash splintered the silence.

Ark peered at the floor where his latest experiment had spilled in a gelatinous goo across the floor. One brief, well, three brief pleasant encounters, and he’d be paying for uncountable cycles. Perhaps for the rest of his natural life!

Meta shrugged her numerous shoulders and waved all six tentacles. “Make sure you clean that up carefully. You don’t want to get sick. New father and all.” With a giggle, she waddled through the open doorway.

A throb building behind his eyes, Ark lusted for a tall glass of green and a trip to Lux. Yes, he’d stop by and see Teal. Compare fatherhood stories. After all, it was Teal who made interacting with the opposite sex so appealing. Had it all been a lie?

Before he officially met his offspring, he must find out.

Books by A. K. Frailey

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend Novels

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter https://amzn.to/3iGqGlQ

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In Production)

OldEarth Melchior Encounter (In Production)

Science Fiction Novels

Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Short Stories

It Might Have Been—And Other Short Stories https://amzn.to/2XXdDDz

Encounter Science Fiction Short Stories & Novella https://amzn.to/3dq6q5l

Inspirational Non-Fiction

My Road Goes Ever On—Spiritual Being, Human Journey

https://amzn.to/2KvF3Ll

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings

http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Photo https://pixabay.com/photos/landscape-cave-moon-twilight-night-5563684/